Now in our third national lockdown, the need for access to devices and data is greater than ever. From increasing isolation amongst the elderly, to limiting education, digital exclusion is only growing existing social inequalities.
Two million households are without access to the internet and 22% of the UK population lack basic digital skills. The children in these households, many in rural and hard to reach areas, are at risk of falling – and being left – further behind in their education. The adults seeking work are missing opportunities to seek and apply for jobs. And the much-needed contact with friends and family, is even further away at a time when connection is needed more than ever.
Too many gaps
The Government has worked with some network providers, including Tesco Mobile, Giffgaff, and the Post Office, to provide deals for frontline staff and low-income families. Phone companies have stepped up to offer support too, including BT’s partnership with the Department of Education, opening up its Wi-fi hotspots to give school children six months of free internet access. BT and Three are offering free data and unlimited broadband for children at home during lockdown. Vodafone is giving 350,000 SIM cards with 30GB of data to disadvantaged students too and at the start of the first lockdown, O2 and HubBub trialled #CommunityCalling in Southwark.
More recently, Government has provided some support for children to access online learning, with schools, trusts and local authorities able to request mobile data increases for children and young people. And BBC Bitesize has now been made available to students offline.
But these policies are not enough. Huge gaps remain, with Ofcom estimating that over a million households are accessing online learning for their children using only smartphones, and over 700,000 children in the UK don’t have access to devices. More than 880,000 have only a mobile internet connection at home.
We know digital exclusion impacts some groups more than others – young care leavers are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic due to lack of access and children in families without the internet tend to live in more disadvantaged areas, where they are already more vulnerable to catching COVID-19.
Now, their attendance at school puts both themselves and their families at significantly higher risk. In primary schools, disadvantaged pupils were already 9.3 months of learning behind their peers prior to the pandemic. Those children and young people are now at risk of being left behind too.
Catch22 Colleges are seeing these gaps first-hand and failing to plug them is not a risk we, as a society, can afford. For example, the Department of Education does not allow Further Education colleges to apply for laptops on behalf of 16-18-year-olds – a demographic who, without sufficient support, are at heightened of risk of poor long-term outcomes.
Alex Stoddart, Assistant Director at Catch22 College, said:
“Our service users are even more vulnerable and disadvantaged than those accessing mainstream Further Education provision.”
Being digitally connected to friends is crucial when a young person is stuck at home 24/7, particularly for those struggling with their mental health. As of November 2020, 25% of the UK population reported feeling lonely, 45% felt anxious or worried, and this rose to 64% of those with a pre-existing mental health condition. As many services move online, those who aren’t digitally connected miss out on the support they so desperately need.
With some schemes starting to offer support, we must find sustainable solutions which will last beyond the pandemic. The very recognition of digital poverty is a stepping stone, but digital access must be classed as a human right. Too often it takes a crisis to act but we must not wait to see the long-term damage.
With support from tech organisations and government, Catch22 is seeking to identify the gaps in support – to find out who is being left behind and how we can bring together all sectors to fill these gaps.